This year, World Water Day occurs on March 22, focusing our attention on one of earth’s most important resources: water. According to the United Nations, we’ll hit a global population of 8 billion by the year 2023. As our population continues to grow, our water resources are becoming increasingly stressed. The World Health Organization shared that 29% of the world’s population still do not have safe drinking water located on the premises and roughly 2.2 million people die from water-related illnesses each year. Unfortunately, there is a new cause of concern as it relates to our water.
Global plastic production has skyrocketed over recent decades as we’ve increased our reliance on plastics to allow us to live a life of convenience. Originally, plastics were introduced as a “cheap” alternative to other materials, such as fabrics, animal products (like bone or tortoise shells), metals, and other ores. They made many consumer goods less expensive, increasing accessibility for many products. Plastic production continued to increase as we moved into the convenience of disposable products: diapers, cups, straws, eating utensils, plates, to-go containers, bags, cleaning aids, and more. If you look around your house, you’ll probably find that many (if not most) of your items have some sort of plastic in them – food containers in your fridge, toothbrushes and other cosmetic products, most fabrics, carpets, electronics, office supplies, home decor and so much more. If it wasn’t made with plastic, there’s a good chance that it came packaged in plastic. But what does our use of plastics have to do with the safety of our water?
Unfortunately, plastics are NOT a sustainable resource. According to the
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development only about 14-18% of plastics are recycled globally each year. Even if you put it in the recycle, it doesn’t mean it ended up there: much of our recycling is being diverted to landfills due to contamination issues (mixed with things that cannot be recycled). Unlike glass or other materials, plastics cannot continually be recycled into new products. Each time it is recycled, the plastic particles are essentially downgraded, limiting its uses. Most of our plastics end up in landfills where they will never fully decompose. They break down into smaller and smaller pieces. These very small pieces of plastic are called microplastics. Some are so tiny, they cannot be seen by the naked eye. And herein lies the problem.
Plastics are a soup of chemicals, 98% of which have never been tested for safety. The
Toxic Substance Control Act of 1976 was established to regulate safety of the chemicals used in consumer products, but 62,000 were grandfathered in as “safe” without EVER having been tested. This innocent until proven guilty model has resulted in a human experiment where we do not know what effects products may have on our health. Chemicals can leach out of plastics into the environment – into our water, into our food, and even directly into our bodies. Scientists have found many serious results regarding potential health impacts from common components of plastics, including, but certainly not limited to, BPA/BPS, Polystyrene, Phthalates, and PVC. Potential health related impacts range from endocrine disruptors (think effects on reproductive systems, growth, and development), cancer, impaired neurological functions, diabetes, obesity, impaired immune system function, asthma/allergic symptoms, ADHD, and negative effects on many other organs (see links in resources for more info). To be honest, we don’t yet know the full impact of all these chemicals on our body – it’s hard to isolate and study any of them in humans over long periods of time due to obvious ethical issues combined with our overwhelming exposure to so many things in everyday life. But findings from animal studies have been alarming and many scientists suspect plastics are playing a role in increased cancer rates and decreased fertility rates. Up until 2016, the US EPA was making progressing on tightening the reins on potentially unsafe chemicals, but much of this work has been undone in recent years.
While much more research is needed, scientists are beginning to raise the alarm about the potential for microplastics to cause harm to our environment, wildlife, and even human health. Microplastics can be found in nearly all environments, but are especially prolific in water: oceans, lakes, rivers, and groundwater. Toxins leaching from these minute plastic bits have the potential to threaten an already stressed resource. Most of our water treatment facilities are not currently equipped to be filtering out tiny pieces of plastics. A preliminary study of bottled water found that 93% of bottled water contained microplastics. While more research is needed, the World Health Organization has indicated it is taking the concern seriously, announcing they will be reviewing the evidence and “establishing a research agenda to inform a more thorough risk assessment.”
In the meantime, scientists have also found that microplastics are accumulating in global food chains. Toxins from plastics that have been consumed by animals are stored in the body, especially in the fat and muscles – the parts we eat. They have been found in the smallest organisms (including plankton and mosquitoes) and bioaccumulate in animals, meaning each predator up the food chain has a higher level of toxins. Again, we need more research on this relatively new topic to more accurately assess the risks of ingesting microplastics in our diet.
So… Now What?
This topic is rather foreboding and can leave you feeling pretty down. BUT – we can make a difference with our actions! Single-use plastics (including disposables, packaging, and bags) account for 40-50% of plastic production. The average lifespan of a plastic bag is 12 minutes. It’s crazy to think it took millions of years for some of our world’s resources, like oil, to form. We spend more resources extracting the oil from the earth and turning it into a product that we don’t truly need just so we can use it for 12 minutes, if that! So here’s what we need to do:
REFUSE PLASTICS/REDUCE USE: Refuse single use plastics – it really is as easy as just saying no. A small investment in reusable alternatives, like to-go coffee mugs, cloth shopping bags, reusable straws, and glass tupperware – can alleviate the need of many of our plastic products. Once you’ve got the basics down – continue on your journey to reducing plastics: buy glass refillable shampoo/lotion/cleaning bottles, look for all natural cotton or linen fabrics, buy second hand to reduce the need for new plastic materials, replace plastic office supplies with recyclable ones made from paper, bring your own containers and cloth produce bags to the grocery store, and so much more. A quick internet search can help you come up with ideas!
VOTE WITH YOUR DOLLAR: As a consumer, you vote with your dollar. You demonstrate what products and production methods you support with each purchase. Choose items that aren’t packaged in plastic. Choose items that aren’t made with plastic or that are sustainably sourced. If we decrease the demand for plastic products, manufacturers will listen. They’ll create products that we want to buy if the demand is there! “Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want to see” – Anna Lappe
Will you be perfect right away? No. As someone who has been on the journey for YEARS, I can tell you – there is STILL an uncomfortable amount of plastic in my house today. Is it better than it was? ABSOLUTELY! And every bit helps. If everyone makes a few small changes, suddenly, together, we have a really big impact. Want to make a bigger impact?
USE YOUR VOICE: One of the best things we can do at this point is continue to educate people on the potential harm plastics are causing to us, wildlife, and the environment. Share information with your friends and family. Speak up at your workplace to advocate for safer options. Write a letter to a local leader or state representative. Vote for candidates who support your view. The biggest impact we can have is when we change the system, not just a portion of the people in it.
For more Resources about Plastics and Toxic Chemicals, visit: